Hey, US taxpayers: Want to hear what your money is buying in northeastern Brazil?
"It's sort of this metallic structure and it has these leg stands jutting out from the sides," says Elizabeth Duffield, a student at the University of Virginia. "It actually reminds me of a lizard stretching out along the boardwalk along the beach."
She's describing the new, massive aquarium that's going up in Fortaleza, one of Brazil's biggest cities. It will be the largest in South America, and the United States is helping foot the bill. Not only is the money — $105 million — coming from the Export-Import Bank of the United States, but American businesses are both designing the aquarium and building its wavy, prefabricated parts.
Duffield recently went to Fortaleza to see the project taking shape — a shape that doesn't look much like your typical aquarium. It reminds her of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, she says, and it fits "this new modern image that Brazil's Secretary of Tourism is really trying to achieve with this city." Whether it fits in with Fortaleza's traditional colonial architecture is another matter.
But more importantly, is the Acquario Ceará really something that Fortaleza needs? That's the question that’s on everyone's minds. The city may be Brazil's fifth-largest, but also it's the capital of the country's fifth-poorest state.
The Department of Tourism, Duffield says, argues that the project will bring in a lot of money and create tourism jobs. But many citizens, particularly the poorer ones, are saying the aquarium is a misuse of funds. Duffield sums up their argument: "This large amount of funds being directed at building this project will only benefit tourists when so much of the city is still without sanitation."
Some of the people who are unhappy with the aquarium have created a Facebook page called "I wish I were a fish." The campaign comes out of the favela community located right next to the aquarium site.
"They really are the ones driving it," Duffield says, "and they continue to be very active protesting the development even though construction started in 2011 and continues." Just as protesters this year demanded "FIFA-quality hospitals" as Brazil shelled out for expensive World Cup projects, Fortalezans are pointing out the irony that "the fish are getting essentially a better house than they have."
Some observers suggest a compromise: The aquarium is built to boost tourism and its economic impact is used to transform Fortaleza and its people. But Duffield worries that while the mega aquarium might bring more jobs for taxi drivers or more hotels and restaurants for tourists, "there is still going to be something missing. This project doesn't attack the fact that the schools are just not able to a handle the number of students they need to be taking in. It doesn't handle the fact that only 47 percent of Fortaleza has sanitation."
In other words, Fortaleza's problems are too big for any one building to fix. "This will produce revenue but it's not going to necessarily go toward solving deep seated problems that will only continue to grow the divide between the wealthy and the lower classes."
If you want to read more about why the US is building the "fantastical Aquarium in Brazil" check out Kriston Capps' story at The Atlantic's CityLab blog.